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Genetics link found in search for sweet strawberries

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 11:06

If you’ve ever bitten into a strawberry and wondered why it doesn’t taste as sweet or as good as others in the punnet, you could blame the fruit’s genetics.

Two studies, published today in BMC Genomics, found that the distinct flavour of strawberry has been linked to a specific gene, present in some varieties of the fruit – but not in others.

The gene FaFAD1 controls a key flavour volatile compound in strawberries called gamma-decalactone, which is described as “fruity”, “sweet” or “peachy” and contributes to fruit aroma.

Andalusian Institute of Agricultural Research and Training (IFAPA) researcher Iraida Amaya said it was significant that the two studies arrived at the same conclusion using very diverse cultivars, because it suggests “that a marker in this gene would likely predict the presence/absence of the gene in breeding programs worldwide”.

Not all strawberries are created equal

Fruit flavour and aroma are determined by a combination of sugars, acids and volatile compounds. Strawberries have a complex volatile profile, made up of more than 360 volatile compounds, of which around 20 are considered to impact strawberry flavour.

The first BMC Genomics paper, by the IFAPA in Malaga, Spain, studied 20 breeding lines of strawberries, mostly originating from California, and the second paper, from the University of Florida, took an aromatic French strawberry variety.

Both showed that FaFAD1 was not present in fruits that did not produce gamma-decalactone.

Chapendra/Flicke, CC BY-NC

FaFAD1 encodes an enzyme – fatty-acid desaturase – which initiates production of the compound gamma-decalactone, activating in fruits (including peaches, plums, apricots, pineapples and strawberries) as they ripen.

While the studies found that gamma-decalactone was undetectable in some lines of strawberry, its accumulation varied greatly within and between harvest seasons in others.

Using genomics-based strategies to identify genes controlling flavour, scientists will be able to design molecular markers to follow these genes in breeding populations.

Senior lecturer in agriculture Daniel Tan, from the University of Sydney, said: “The development of molecular markers are significant as these markers can be used to improve the understanding of the genetics of flavour in strawberry."

This allows researchers to pinpoint strawberry varieties with a high likelihood of sweeter flavours.

Strawberry farming into the future

Strawberries are a valuable crop worldwide, yet modern farmers have often bred fruit for its size and yield, but not for taste.

The findings of these studies could finally merge these features, helping to “marry peachy flavour with other desirable berry traits,” David Tribe, a senior lecturer in food biotechnology from the University of Melbourne, said.

Professor of molecular biology Merlin Crossley, from the University of New South Wales, said an understanding of abstract qualities such as taste at a molecular and digital genetic level" could help breeders select and develop these characteristics, “combining chemistry – to measure key flavour chemicals – and genomics to find the genes responsible for producing these chemicals.

“Plant breeding has been carried out for centuries but subjective taste evaluations and competing factors, like the look of the fruit, can sometimes confound efforts to improve quality,” he said. “These studies provide new tools for traditional selective breeding or even genetic modification.”

For Dr Tribe this research shows “the pay-off of high tech DNA methods for providing practical breeding tools and better fruits” that can accelerate “breeding programs that rest on cross pollination” without the use of genetic engineering.

Grammar matters and should be taught – differently

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 08:44

We need to bring back teaching grammar, but not how it used to be Shutterstock

I’m going to put it out there - most teachers don’t know enough about how the English language works [aka grammar], and this inevitably impacts upon student literacy outcomes.

There are grammar pundits who love their knowledge about the language for the haughty power it affords them: the ability to write corrective letters to the editor and the certain belief there is one right way to write and speak - their way.

This group gives grammar a bad name.

Grammar isn’t about linguistic straight jackets and rules; it is how creativity manifests itself in language. Grammar is how we organise our words and sentences to communicate with others and to express ourselves.

With grammar knowledge you know what is possible in English; you know how you need to speak and write to get the job done in different situations. You know when you can push the envelope with language, and how to do that.

Speaking and writing are not the same

What we can do with written language is very different from what we can do with spoken language. When we write, we have time to hone and craft our language, and so the grammar of our writing is very different from the grammar of our speaking.

When we don’t teach grammar we stifle creativity and limit possibilities for many children. We leave them to fall back on what they intuitively know about language, and as a consequence they simply write like they speak.

Subsequent teacher comments on their writing are vague and unhelpful - ‘too informal, too colloquial, too chatty, rambling, repetitive’. Kids need more direction than this; they need someone who can show them what is possible in written language and how to achieve it.

All children deserve to be able to use language with intention and effect, for any purpose and in all circumstances. Indeed their capacity to do so is what they are assessed on everyday at school, so if teachers don’t teach what school is assessing we are being negligent.

If the only language resource kids have is what they hear in their everyday lives, then we leave behind the children who need us most.

So - why don’t teachers teach grammar?

If you went to school any time from the 70s onwards, you probably didn’t get much grammar instruction at school. Some large scale research studies in the 60s, replicated over the decades, concluded that grammar instruction didn’t have much impact upon reading and writing, so why bother with it.

But the problem wasn’t grammar, it was the way it was being taught. Grammar was a standalone subject where random sentences were divided into their constituent parts (parsing or diagramming) - grammar teaching was not a means to an end (improved literacy), it was just the end.

The disappearance of grammar from schools - and most teacher education faculties - for decades means many of today’s teachers have no subject knowledge of grammar, nor any idea of how to teach it effectively. And publishers have stepped in to fill the gap.

Teaching grammar

Publishers also have no idea how to teach grammar, but are happy to sell hundreds of thousands grammar workbooks to insecure teachers and parents - tedious, out-of-context grammar exercises that urge children to underline the adjective and circle the noun on page after page of pointless, time-wasting work.

This work doesn’t uncover the beauty of the English language, nor does it it unleash creativity in our children. It does the opposite. These workbooks are the epitome of bad writing; writing that serves no expressive or communicative purpose.

The best way to teach grammar is through exemplary literature. This is where grammar is real. This is where we understand the ways in which we can play with language to achieve our intentions.

In great writing we can notice how the author uses their language knowledge and how they organise their words and sentences to make us notice, feel, see or imagine something.

But for that kind of teaching to happen, teachers need grammar knowledge.

Building teachers’ knowledge about language

Many great writers probably have little explicit knowledge of how the language works, but intuitively they play with grammar all the time. They can dip into a broad repertoire of implicit language knowledge, and make deliberate choices in their writing.

For example, they know when they start their sentence with words about where (adverbial phrases) rather than who, that their reader will be pulled into the setting rather than focused immediately on the character. They know that describing a character through their actions (adverbials) can sometimes be more evocative than describing their appearance (adjectivals).

Most of our kids neither know these things, nor how to organise their writing to achieve them.

So whilst great writers can get by with an intuitive understanding of English grammar, teachers need an explicit knowledge. They need to able to understand how effective writing works, so they can notice language and teach it to their students.

Testing teachers won’t build this language knowledge. What is required is carefully considered pre-service and in-service professional learning for teachers where language knowledge is built inside great teaching - rather than some disconnected sideshow.

Reading is a good way for kids to learn grammar Shutterstock

Time for a grammar revolution

If we are happy with the status quo - where the power of writing is enjoyed by the intuitive few, or those from very specific home backgrounds, then we could do what we’ve been doing since the 70’s.

If we want to return to the ‘good old days’ of the 50s and 60s where grammar instruction thrilled a few, bored most and made no difference to reading and writing outcomes then we could continue down the current track of meaningless grammar teaching from workbooks.

Or if we’d like to do something powerful for our children - and close the achievement gap whilst we’re at it - we’ll ensure all teachers have grammar knowledge and fill our classrooms with great literature where the power of sophisticated language knowledge is both evident and inspiring.

Misty Adoniou does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Searching underwater for MH370 is a shot in the dark

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 06:30

The ongoing search for missing flight MH370 has shown how finding objects such as debris on the ocean is difficult, but finding them underwater in the deep ocean is much more challenging.

As of Tuesday, the search for the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 went underwater with the Bluefin-21 autonomous unmanned vehicle put into action.

Already there have been problems on both days of operation, with the vehicle reaching its maximum operating depth of 4,500m.

What data the search authorities were able to download from the vehicle’s first mission – which lasted only six hours – has been analysed and “no objects of interest” have been found. A visual search was then planned for the area 2,087km north west of Perth.

Darkest depths

If and when the search underwater resumes there are a number of challenges. Since light only penetrates to about 200m deep even in the clearest water, light is not so useful for searching in the ocean.

In the area of the Indian Ocean where search authorities think the flight might have crashed, the water is more than 4,000m deep. There is no light down at the bottom there, it is pitch dark.

To locate sub-surface objects in the ocean, such as the underwater location beacon “pingers” attached to the black boxes of MH370, various sonars (SOund Navigation And Ranging) are used.

(Sonars can be used by submarines to detect objects that they might run into, although for stealth reasons they often choose to run silent.)

Multi-beam and side-scan sonars determine the depth of the ocean and the thickness of different types of sediment (such as mud or sand) and have located shipwrecks in the past.

But the depth of the ocean is not well known. We know the Moon and Mars better than we know the ocean floor.

In 2005, the USS San Francisco collided with an seamount (mountain in the ocean) in the Pacific, near Guam. The seamount was not on any navigational charts at the time.

Dry dock reveals the damage from the underwater collision of a USS San Francisco submarine with an uncharted seamount. Some 23 seamen were injured, one fatally. The submarine was almost lost. US Navy

Searching for MH370

Scientists have mapped the depth of the sea floor using multi-beam or swath sonar systems but these systems only cover a band underneath the ship and a little to either side.

This works well in regions where there are lots of ship traffic, but not so well if ship traffic is sparse. The area where MH370 may have gone down in the Indian Ocean doesn’t see a lot of ship traffic, so it falls into the category of a not well known area.

Basically, this means those coordinating the search on board the ADV Ocean Shield, which deploys the Bluefin-21, use a map, which has guessed between the few known spots. Often maps don’t indicate where it is a guess or where it is known.

There are limits

So the ocean turned out to be deeper than they expected. They discontinued using the autonomous vehicle, since it needs to be within 30m of the ocean bottom to work properly – and that now appears to be beyond its depth range.

The pressure at such depths is simply too much for the equipment to take. Pressure increases by about 1 atmosphere of pressure for every 10m descent. One atmosphere is about 1kg per square centimetre or 14.7lb per square inch.

At 4,500m there would be 450 more atmospheres of pressure. That’s equivalent to about 465kg of pressure per square centimetre – which is a lot of pressure.

Protecting the electronic equipment on Bluefin-21 requires a pressure casing. EPA/Leut Kelli Lunt/Australian Department of Defense.

When engineers build any underwater instrument the electronics must be kept dry, so they are enclosed in a case that can withstand considerable pressure. The walls have to be thick or made of strong material (that doesn’t corrode in seawater) and the seals must be tight. For the deep depths and high pressures, that’s expensive and there are limits.

No straight line in search

It’s estimated the search area as roughly 75,000 square kilometres, slightly larger than Tasmania. Any sonar equipment looking for the pinger or aircraft wreckage is being dragged on the equivalent of a sled behind the ship on a long cable.

It will not follow the ship exactly, but will wiggle back and forth. Think of a car pulling a sled on a long rope. You would want to have a really wide road, because the sled will be swinging back and forth even without wind. Currents are the equivalent of wind and with currents, it will be swinging even more.

So the search vessel could drive the same path on the surface and the sonar sled cover a different path each time.

Dead batteries

The batteries in a black box recorder beacon are supposed to last a minimum of 30 days and flight MH370 disappeared on Saturday, March 8 – 40 days ago.

So if the batteries are now dead and the pingers silent, side-scan type sonars (on devices such as the Bluefin-21) must be used to find the plane’s wreckage. The actual black boxes are too small to find.

The search is further complicated by the amount of other debris floating or sunk to the ocean bottom.

My research team once towed an instrument off NSW at at depth of 200m behind a research vessel, when the tension on the wire peaked and then dropped.

Although we don’t know for sure what happened, the rust on the cable indicated that it had probably rubbed against an unknown rusty object, which we speculated was a ghost container – a shipping container that had fallen off a ship and partially sunk. Ghost containers don’t always float at the surface or settle to the bottom either, often they just hang around in the middle depths.

There are quite a few of these ghost containers in the ocean, but no one knows where, because the currents move them around.

So basically, finding an object on the bottom of the ocean is very difficult and finding the MH370 black boxes is a extremely, challenging task. I hope they are successful in their search.

Robin Robertson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

G20 tax reform mired in shadowy world of lobbying

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 06:30

Researchers estimate the US loses more than US$90 billion annually in corporate income tax revenues from tax loopholes and tax havens, also known as base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS). With a growing perception that multinationals consider income taxes voluntary, international tax reform is on the agenda.

However, prospects for significant reform are dim as large, well-funded groups successfully lobby the US – where corporate tax reform has stalled – to maintain the status quo. At the OECD, proposals to replace current toothless transfer pricing rules are off the table.

In the most developed nations, lobbying statutes are enacted to promote transparency. In the US, both the firms that lobby and their lobbyists are required to register with Congress and publicly disclose their clients, fees earned, and lobbying issues. But the lack of lobbying disclosure requirements at the OECD creates an army of ghost lobbyists who are invisible to the public and yet are shaping international tax policy.

Paying to fall between the cracks

The corporate players behind the scenes of OECD tax reform proposals use associations and law firms to hide their identity from the public.

During 2013, lobbying expenses in the US were US$3.21 billion. But there is no doubt it is a good investment – a recent study found a return of $220 for every $1 spent - a boggling 22,000% - on lobbying expenses for firms seeking a one-time tax holiday on international earnings.

OECD tax policies are not just important for its 34 member nations. These policies have implications for developing nations’ ability to raise revenue and create a level playing field for local businesses.

One of the most successful of the groups lobbying the OECD is the Digital Economy Group (DEG), fronted by the prominent US law firm Baker & McKenzie, which has had considerable success in pressuring the OECD to maintain favourable tax rules on web-based sales, and sourcing of income from intellectual property.

At Baker & McKenzie, former OECD staffer Mary C. Bennett represents DEG, and Caroline Silberztein, who headed OECD’s transfer pricing unit for 10 years and initiated their intangible transfer pricing work, gives DEG members backchannels to the OECD staff.

While not individually identified, DEG members also belong to the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD (BIAC), an association with a strong, formalised connection with the OECD, and charged with advocating business perspectives.

The public database maintained by the US Senate shows no record of DEG or BIAC. In the US, BIAC members lobby individually and through other groups like the Business Roundtable which spent US$12 million lobbying in 2013.

The public remains in the dark about DEG membership. The OECD does not require lobbying disclosures by association members and Baker & McKenzie won’t identify the firms bankrolling their lobbying efforts. Amazon, Google and other large US internet-based firms are speculated to be key players.

Firms use trade associations or coalitions to lobby. The benefit of lobbying in a group includes building greater constituency with Congress, increasing economies of scale and more importantly, providing cover.

Like tax law, the US lobbying disclosure laws are also riddled with loopholes. Trade associations’ lobbying expenses are public but linking expenses to specific firms’ contributions is impossible. Further, membership lists which are required to be public disappear from websites after the group disbands.

Public trust is eroded when relationships between private corporations, rule making bodies and regulators appear to be too cozy. In fact, the OECD has asked governments to increase lobbying transparency and prevent conflicts of interest that arise from the “revolving door” between public service and private employment.

Ironically, neither information on the OECD’s own lobbying guidelines nor public disclosure of lobbyists are readily available on their website.

The lobby’s lobby

Historically, the US has played an outsized role in international tax policy at the OECD, being the organisation’s single largest funder, providing over one-fifth of the OECD budget. It is unsurprising then, that US policymakers are engaged in the OECD at the behest of their constituents. The OECD’s earlier work to eliminate tax havens changed from a “bombshell to a damp squib” after US interests intervened.

Treasurer Joe Hockey and OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria put tax reforms on the agenda in February, saying it would be a priority for the G20 meeting in November. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Ebay’s 2013 Q3 lobbying disclosure lists, for instance, includes meeting with US Congress members, the Internal Revenue Service and the US Treasury department on “OECD proposals to modify international tax rules” among other items reported for the US$565,265 in lobbying expenditures during the period.

If international tax reform went ahead, resulting in worldwide tax harmonisation and the elimination of transfer pricing loopholes, firms would likely see increased tax liabilities but reduced tax risk and uncertainty.

Vodafone shareholders are aware of the cost of tax uncertainty. The firm is losing a tax dispute with India worth US$2.6 billion, related to sales through a tax haven subsidiary. Two months after the Indian Supreme Court ruled in Vodafone’s favour, the government retroactively changed the tax code back to 1962 to ensure the transaction would be illegal.

But in most cases, multinationals don’t want to give up the secrecy provisions and the transfer pricing policies for uncertain tax reforms. In other words, better the devil you know.

State by state

The long-term prospects for tax reform are not entirely dim. Recent actions by some US states suggest a growing impatience with the federal and international tax reform efforts.

Hearings before the US Senate and House of Commons Public Accounts Committee have made the public aware of spectacular tax avoidance strategies. But it’s not just public ire that has been the impetus for state tax reform. The reasons for expanding state corporate tax revenues are two part.

US states are unable to borrow to fund government deficits, so when tax revenues decline, they enact austerity measures which face considerable backlash. In a lawsuit brought by local school boards, for example, the Kansas State Supreme Court found the school funding reductions there to be so severe as to be unconstitutional.

Local government officials are also concerned that the deck is stacked against local businesses that do not buy complicated international tax strategies from well-heeled tax lawyers and accountants.

Three types of state laws are effectively closing down the most aggressive tax planning strategies. First, states are moving away from separate company reporting (similar to that used in international taxation) and instead are adopting combined, or unitary, reporting. Unitary or combined reporting eliminates the benefits of shifting profit to subsidiaries in no-tax states.

Second, states are also enacting “economic nexus” laws which subject firms to tax based upon an economic, not physical, presence in the state. Digital economy firms and others with significant intangible property are aggressively fighting these laws, but the US Supreme Court has decided not to hear their pleas.

Third, states are enacting legislation to impose tax on corporate revenues earned in tax havens, even if this income is not subject to tax at the federal level. A recent study shows that California would raise US$3.3 billion by taxing corporate profits sent to tax havens.

But states are being lobbied as well, and not just by corporations. Representatives from Luxembourg and Lichtenstein have written to Maine – population 1.3 million – to argue against a bill that would have closed a loophole allowing multinationals to use tax havens to evade tax.

No change soon

According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, 81% of US CEOs believe the current international tax system has not changed to reflect how multinational corporations operate today. Yet, only 7% believe the OECD will achieve substantial reform of the international tax system within the next couple of years.

Due to successful lobbying efforts, US tax reform has stalled and now US multinationals believe the OECD is merely studying BEPS, rather than doing something about it.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

Dynamic atolls give hope that Pacific Islands can defy sea rise

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 06:29

It is widely predicted that low-lying coral reef islands will drown as a result of sea-level rise, leaving their populations as environmental refugees. But new evidence now suggests that these small islands will be more resilient to sea-level rise than we thought.

That is not to say that these tiny nations won’t face significant environmental challenges. Built of sand and shingle and lying just 1-3m above the current sea level, coral reef islands in the central Pacific and Indian Oceans are considered among the most vulnerable places on Earth.

The new findings suggest that, rather than being passive lumps of rock that will be swamped by rising seas and eroded by storms, the islands are dynamic structures that can move and even grow in response to changing seas.

But although the islands may survive into the future, the changes could still affect issues like fresh water and agriculture, potentially making life on these islands much more difficult than it is today.

Long-term island formation

We have closely examined how reef islands formed over the past 5,000 years in response to past changes in sea level, in a bid to find out how islands might behave in the future. In our most recent study, we show that Jabat Island in the Marshall Islands, central Pacific, was created 5,000 years ago as sea level rose to 1.5m above its present level.

Since that time, sea levels have fallen once more, leaving the island much higher relative to the current sea level. Over the coming century, future sea-level rise will simply reoccupy the levels under which the island formed. This finding is consistent with our case studies in the Great Barrier Reef and the Maldives, which show that islands can form under a range of sea-level conditions including rising, falling, and stable.

Together, these studies show that sea level alone is not the main factor that controls the formation and subsequent change of reef islands. These processes also depend on the surrounding coral reef generating sufficient sand and shingle to build islands.

Changes over the past century

We also looked at how islands have physically changed over the past 60 to 100 years. Our study sites are in regions of the Pacific Ocean where sea level has been rising at more than 2mm per year for the past five decades.

Using comparisons of historical maps, aerial photographs and satellite images, we have been able to test the hypothesis that central Pacific Islands have begun to erode away in response to this sea-level rise.

One example is the reef islands in Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu, in the central Pacific. Our study found that most of these islands either remained stable in size or grew larger over the past few decades, in spite of rising sea levels.

Changes in vegetated shoreline on Tepuka Island, Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu 1896-2005.

Another of our studies found that islands in Nadikdik Atoll, Marshall Islands, have been rebuilt over the past century despite being destroyed by a typhoon in 1905. All of this shows that reef islands are able to grow under current climate conditions.

Dynamic islands

This suggests that coral islands are very dynamic landforms that adjust their shape and position on reef surfaces over decades. Low-lying islands are built by the action of waves and currents, which deposit sand and gravel at the shoreline. Just like any beach, as wave and current processes change, island sand and shingle is mobilised and deposited elsewhere on the shoreline. Through this ongoing process islands can change their shape and migrate across reef surfaces.

We are now aiming to work out the scale and speed of these changes – which will be crucial for helping island communities to adapt to the rising seas. One question is whether islands can build vertically to keep pace with rising sea levels.

Our results suggest that islands can grow upwards when waves wash over them during storms or tsunami, depositing sand in the process. This suggests that islands may be able to withstand rising sea levels and increased storminess – although life on those islands may be very different to today.

What does this mean for small island nations?

On the face of it, this is potentially good news for Pacific communities. The islands they call home may be less vulnerable than is commonly thought.

But our findings also suggest that although the islands may not be swamped by rising seas, they are likely to change in size and shift their position on the surface of reefs. The rate of these changes may also increase as sea level rises.

This raises questions for their ongoing habitation. How will physical changes to the islands affect drinking water supplies, and how will communities need to adapt their farming practices? Questions about island change must be addressed urgently in order to inform decision making and secure the future of Pacific nations.

Paul Kench does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Identity crisis: who does the Australian Labor Party represent?

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 06:28

In the wake of the ALP’s poor result in the recent Western Australia Senate election, The Conversation is publishing a series of articles looking at the party’s brand, organisation and future prospects.

The key problem facing federal Labor leader Bill Shorten in the wake of the Western Australian Senate re-election is one he has in common with every past Labor leader. The Australian Labor Party is always expected to be true to traditional “Labor values” but also has to adapt them to a changing Australia.

While the ALP can talk about good and necessary government policies to help particular groups (such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme) and it can talk about health and education broadly, when it comes to economics and the need to help in a globalised age it has lost the ability to talk of government doing public good for all. All it can do is talk about the free market.

From Calwell to Whitlam

A recent poll asked if Labor looked after the interests of working people. And 54% thought it did, but this was hardly resounding, since 49% thought it was out of touch with ordinary people.

Nonetheless, there are clear assumptions that Labor exists to look after the working class. This is a legacy from the past that is a burden and a blessing.

The problem is, who are the working people in today’s Australia when most Australians define themselves as “middle class”?

The ALP began in the 1890s as a vehicle for blue-collar working-class people who felt they had no political voice. Unions were woven into their lives in the small communities from which they barely strayed.

Appealing to the blue-collar vote was acceptable as long as flat caps, heavy boots and misshapen trousers were the uniforms of working-class men. But in the 1940s Australia started to change appreciably. The link between the ALP and the votes of blue-collar workers started to break down.

Gough Whitlam broadened the ALP’s appeal as party leader. Parliamentary Library

Blue-collar workers now make up only a small portion of the labour force. Among other things, industrialisation after World War Two expanded the working class in the factories but also changed its composition with immigration from all sorts of countries.

Also, the seemingly widespread affluence of the new consumer society and burgeoning levels of home ownership during the 1950s and 1960s seemed to leave behind the old socialist arguments about poverty, exploitation and depression. Labor was moribund and stuck in the past with leaders like Arthur Calwell who refused to modernise the party.

This was the case until Gough Whitlam came along. He broadened party organisation. He dropped the references to the working class while calling everyone “comrade” and attracted new categories of voters and new constituencies for Labor.

Whitlam was the first political leader to recognise women as a political category in their own right and not appendages to men as daughters, wives and mothers. He appealed to Aboriginal Australians as voters and to migrants as more than New Australians or refugees.

But Whitlam also aimed to keep the core voters of Labor with a general approach that emphasised the general good that the government could do for all. In other words, Whitlam broadened the ALP’s appeal beyond the unions and the traditional constituencies because all major political parties must be seen to appeal to sectional but also national interests.

Reclaiming the core constituency

The ALP has never just looked to the working class and unions to win office. The working class has never just been a solid Labor voting bloc.

The growing sentiment of mythology and party lore over the decades has been an understandable but also distracting nostalgia. From the beginning of the 20th century, the ALP had to look beyond the core constituency of unions and workers to sections of the middle class to win office and to insist on ruling for all groups – not just for the union movement.

This is what happens when you have to aim for more than 50% of the vote. And failure to look further afield helped account for the 23 years Labor spent out of power federally between 1949 and 1972.

The ALP must get a majority by going beyond its core constituency while risking offence to this constituency. And yet, it must try to keep both. Consequently, there was often conflict in the past between trade unions and political leaders over this strategy.

In recent years

One of the problems since its 1996 election loss is that too many Labor MPs have swallowed the right-wing Kool-Aid. They took to heart John Howard’s critique that true Labor voters – the “Howard battlers” – left the ALP for him while the party chased the inner-city middle class and “minorities”.

Howard defined the ALP in the absence of the party defining itself, even though it was swinging voters – not true Labor supporters – who flocked to him.

Consequently, there was the rush of unrequited ALP affection for the “aspirationals” of western Sydney, for instance. However, the party forgot about appeasing its core vote with the promise of help. It forgot about the balancing act.

Last year, voters in western Sydney were still squirming like a reluctant teenager embraced by an over-affectionate aunt when Julia Gillard toured the area.

The ALP has shown unrequited love for voters in the growth area of Western Sydney. AAP/Paul Miller

Diagnosing Labor’s malaise

The ALP has been unable to define itself as anything but a party devoted to free-market reforms since the Hawke government in the 1980s. The party has lobotomised itself of its history. Although there had been progressive deregulation and reform over the years, this was done as part of an overall plan of state intervention.

The Hawke government introduced the Accord, a series of wage and tax deals between the government and the union movement. It also brought in compulsory superannuation (government-legislated providing rivers of gold to a finance sector that hypocritically talks of free market for others) and a series of plans for cars, steel, textile, clothing and footwear that involved the government, appropriate businesses and business organisations, and unions. And helping BHP with almost A$1 billion doesn’t sound free market to me.

These plans involved government spending to help modernise in exchange for a timeline for dropping tariffs and targets for exports. But this history has been cut from the corporate memory, and in the process the ALP has lost the ability to talk about government doing public good for ordinary people.

This failure of the ALP to find its voice, except briefly in 2007, partly accounts for sentimental attachment to the unions as the ballast that will keep the party on the right social democratic path. This is even so despite union members making up only 18% of the workforce.

This failure to find its voice also means the ALP is not knitting together constituencies when there is more than enough evidence that middle and working-class people will be loaded with the burdens of a changing economy.

Mark Rolfe does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

A fine balance: disability, discrimination and public safety

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 06:28

A recent discrimination case has highlighted the difficulty of balancing the rights of disabled medical students with the rights of the community to safe medical and health care. In the BKY v The University of Newcastle, a New South Wales tribunal found the university had discriminated against a medical student by refusing her an extension to complete the five-year medical course beyond the usual maximum of eight years.

Under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW), it’s unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against anyone on the basis of disability. The student claimed she had been subject to discrimination based on the fact she had bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and severe psychosocial stressors. She had attended a psychiatrist regularly throughout her previous nursing degree, while employed as a nurse, and during her medical degree.

She had self-reported her conditions to the NSW Medical Board in 2008. And during the medical program, she worked part-time in the John Hunter Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.

What the tribunal heard

BKY had reached the three-and-a-half-year mark of her degree after eight years of study. In that time, she had passed 13 courses after repeating eight of them, failed four and been awarded withdrawal without penalty for five courses.

But the university had not asked her to show why her enrolment should not be cancelled on the basis of her unsatisfactory academic performance.

The dean of medicine’s evidence included his view that BKY was unlikely to complete the degree even with extra time; that further study would injure her health; that the currency of BKY’s knowledge was questionable; that there was a risk she would perform poorly in clinical rotations because of her anxiety; and that there was a risk she would not practice medicine safely even if she completed the degree.

BKY’s psychiatrist stated her disorders were characterised by performance anxiety around exams and consequent avoidance behaviour, although she had the ability to complete exams later, a poor sense of self-worth, and fear of failure resulting in an inability to study. She had only completed a nursing degree when directly faced with the prospect of not finishing. The psychiatrist considered it unlikely her symptoms would disrupt effective functioning as a medical practitioner.

The tribunal’s findings

The tribunal found “the psychiatric conditions affected the applicant’s thought processes, emotions or judgment and resulted in disturbed behaviour.” It concluded that this was a disability under the Anti-Discrimination Act and found the student had been treated less favourably than someone without the disability in the same or similar circumstances. This conclusion was reached by comparing her case with another student who had also sought, and was granted an extension on the basis of poor academic progress.

The tribunal identified a probable connection between the decision not to grant BKY an extension and her psychiatric condition, because any concern regarding currency of knowledge should also have applied to the other student making the same application. BKY’s psychiatric condition should have been considered as extenuating circumstances, it said, and favoured the psychiatrist’s opinion over the medical dean’s on whether BKY would complete the course.

The tribunal also found the dean’s decision had depended on the alleged effect on BKY’s health of her continuing study and his opinion concerning her suitability to practise safely, which should have been irrelevant to his decision.

What it means

Educators are becoming increasingly concerned that some students should not be admitted to professional degrees, due to conditions that impede academic progress and suggest the possibility of later unsafe practice. The clinical features of BKY’s conditions are good examples of such grounds for concern.

The tribunal’s legal task was not to determine if BKY would be fit to practise safely. That’s the responsibility of the NSW Medical Council. But the stark demarcation between the student and practitioner jurisdictions is problematic because of potential implications for more extreme cases.

Universities have a duty not to discriminate against students, but they also have duties to the communities that support them. The psychiatrist’s opinion that BKY’s symptoms were unlikely to disrupt effective practice will be of concern to many doctors and medical educators, given the nature of the conditions and the experience of medical regulators with doctors with these conditions.

The required registration of medical and other health practitioner students with the relevant boards under the National Registration and Accreditation scheme may go some way to addressing educator concern, given the boards monitor impaired students and doctors in relation to any risk posed to public safety.

But exemptions to discrimination provisions under federal and state statutes might also be considered in more extreme cases, allowing universities to participate more actively in ensuring they graduate safe practitioners.

Malcolm Parker receives funding from ARC.

Scientists hold hope for new measles drug

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 06:28

A new oral antiviral drug may be a future tool in the global fight against measles, according to a new international study.

The research, published today in the journal Science Translational Medicine, tested the new drug on ferrets infected with the canine distemper virus (CDV) – a virus with similarities to measles.

CDV is highly lethal to ferrets but all the animals treated with the new drug survived infection, remained disease free and developed robust immunity against the virus.

Although more research is needed before the drug is tested on humans, if successful it could help efforts to eradicate measles by reducing its spread during local outbreaks.

Not for human consumption, yet

In the future, the new oral antiviral drug could be used to treat people exposed to measles, such as family and friends of an infected person. This would help contain the overall spread of the virus.

Ian Barr, deputy director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, said while antiviral drug development was ongoing, a low percentage of the drugs actually made it to the market.

“Many of the antiviral drugs developed can successfully inhibit the virus but the side-effects profile is often the downfall,” Dr Barr said.

He added that, aside from determining the drug’s efficacy in humans against measles, researchers also needed to overcome the issue of resistance. Since viruses often mutate under drug pressure, antiviral drugs were always at risk of becoming ineffective.

Measles is back

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) measles remains one of the leading causes of death among young children, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine. In 2012, approximately 122,000 people died from measles – the majority were children under the age of five.

The virus is highly contagious and spread through the air by breathing, coughing and sneezing. In a shared space with an infected person, 90% of people without immunity will catch it.

Because of this efficiency of infection, 95% of a population needs to be protected through immunisation to provide immunity to those who are not.

Lyn Gilbert, clinical professor in medicine and infectious diseases at The University of Sydney, said measles elimination has stalled recently even in Europe, North America and Australasia, where there are relatively high rates of vaccination.

In 2010, more than 30,000 cases of measles were reported across 32 European countries, where it had previously been considered to be controlled. This included 21 measles-related deaths. In 2011, the WHO reported more than 26,000 cases in 36 European countries and nine deaths.

Professor Gilbert said there were a number of reasons for the resurgence of measles, including:

  • reduced vaccination uptake
  • high travel rates to countries where measles remains common
  • fears and misconceptions about the MMR vaccine
  • migrant children, from countries with low vaccine uptake, remaining susceptible in adolescence.

Michael Wise*, computational biology professor at The University of Western Australia, said the new drug wouldn’t affect vaccination rates in the developing world, where governments often couldn’t afford the vaccination let alone a “second-strike drug”.

“As for developed countries, it may give those disinclined to vaccinate a ‘reason’ to not do what they were minded not to do,” Professor Wise added.

Professor Gilbert said the main value of the drug would be for people who couldn’t be vaccinated for whatever reason.

“Programs to maintain high levels of vaccine uptake would need to continue to maintain protection against rubella and mumps as well as other childhood preventable diseases,” she added.

*Michael Wise is chair of the Immunisation Alliance of WA.

Kenny's dog days are over – but is satire's bark worse than its bite?

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 06:26

Hear ye, hear ye across the land! Chris Kenny is definitely NOT a Fido fiddler! Remember, he is definitely NOT a Fido fiddler.

So sayeth – sort of – Justice Robert Beech-Jones in his judgment this week that there were “defamatory imputations” when The Chaser team broadcast an image of News Limited journalist Chris Kenny, digitally manipulated to make it look as if he was having sex with a dog.

Importantly, the judge said the skit did not convey that Kenny actually was “a pervert who had sex with a dog”. Even Kenny admitted that it was “a doctored picture, something fabricated”. So we weren’t to take the picture literally – but rather metaphorically, as a message about Kenny.

The Australian got it right with its headline this week: “Kenny doesn’t see the joke”. Kenny, who among other gigs is a columnist for The Australian, was quoted as saying: “I am yet to meet anyone who understood what was broadcast about me as a joke anyway, let alone someone who thought it was funny”.

As one might expect, the targets of satire don’t usually like to see the point of the attacks, unless they are politicians who are expected to publicly laugh at themselves. So George W. Bush had to put on a smiling face during Stephen Colbert’s audacious roast in 2006.

Instead of laughing along when the Chaser team turned their guns on journalists with a segment about “a panel of opinionated hacks”, Kenny took the skit out of its context and placed it in one much more comfortable for him. This was just another case of typical ABC leftwing bias – and worse, it was funded by taxpayers.

This partisan context allowed the great and the good of the right to express their opinions about the ABC. Former ABC chair Maurice Newman was invited by The Australian to comment. He weighed in heavily:

I think you’d find an overwhelming ­majority of thinking Australians would find it [the skit] offensive … I don’t believe that is befitting of the public broadcaster to have broadcast that. I don’t care whether it’s satire or whether it is shown at midnight, it’s just wrong. It’s tasteless and it doesn’t uphold standards of what the community expects. I mean, seriously, it is extraordinary. It’s unwarranted and unfounded.

Raising matters of taste is beside the point when satirists are aiming to cause offence. You know that when someone connects the word “befitting” and “it’s just wrong” and “community standards” (whatever they are) in the one sentence, they are trying to bolster their own sense of outrage by claiming the “silent majority” is standing behind them.

The Chaser’s Chas Licciardello confronts Julia Gillard at the 2010 election. Aren’t satire and good taste uneasy bedfellows? AAP Image/Alan Porritt

There were 200 complaints about the skit to the ABC. Only one was received in the first 36 hours after broadcast – and 200 after the skit was taken up by columnists.

To put that in context, in 2010-11 there were 1,786 complaints about the sound quality of the live broadcast of Tim Minchin vs the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In that year of three elections there were 2,280 complaints of bias from both sides of the political spectrum.

So much for the “majority” – not that it is a means for creating satire anyway. Are satirists supposed to be cheerleaders for Team Australia or arbiters of taste?

Mark Scott stated when the sketch was broadcast: “Personally, I didn’t like it. I can understand Chris Kenny and his family being upset by it and I am sorry about that”.

Paul Barry on MediaWatch didn’t like it either. So much for an ABC conspiracy.

A delicate situation for the ABC

As CEO, Scott rightly stood back from interfering rather than acting as an editor. But as a result of the court case he was obliged by his responsibilities to intervene and apologise.

The added difficulty for him is the context of the Abbott Government’s expressed distaste for many events at the ABC and the projected budget cuts. Effectively, the right is demanding that he act in an interventionist manner for their pet political cause.

Nevertheless, in this apology Scott wrote:

At the time of broadcast, I described the skit as tasteless and undergraduate, but noted that it raised questions about the nature of satire and the boundaries of free speech afforded to satirists, comedians and cartoonists.

To put this differently, don’t we have the right to be satirical bigots in the eyes of others?

The Racial Discrimination Act may be a target for George Brandis and other campaigners for free speech – but defamation law reform is completely out of the picture. To Kenny and his defenders, the Chaser skit is a matter of taste, bias and reasonableness.

In line with this demand for reasonableness is the old criticism of satirists that they have malign motives. Accordingly, the Herald-Sun gleefully wallowed yesterday in the retribution with a front page headline that recast “Chaser” as an acronym for Conceited Hollow Arrogant Subsidised Egotistical Remorseless.

Furthermore, the more convenient political context of attacks on the ABC allowed the ideological warriors of the right to overlook the practice of the Chasers at every election to spray in all directions at political and media participants.

Satire and the law

Clearly, satire uses humour as a weapon of persuasion.

That is, it is aggressive and aims to get an audience laughing at someone with the clear intention of ridiculing them. Lest this be simply seen as malice, satirists have responded since at least the 18th century that they sniff out cant, hypocrisy, the unjust, the bullies, and so forth for the public good.

The barrister defending the ABC insisted there was no malice on the part of the Chasers – who merely wished to demonstrate that “he [Kenny] lacks credibility as a pundit when he attacks the ABC”.

That claim is likely to appeal to those who already dislike Kenny. In other words, satire can often be less about moral or social reform and more about preaching to the converted.

Australia’s first defamation case had many similarities to the Kenny case. Then too, the personal was an immediate means for ridicule.

In 1843 the editor of the newspaper The Satirist and Sporting Chronicle declared in the first edition that his purpose was to expose and repress:

humbug, either judicial, magisterial or political … and though satire is to be the weapon which we shall fearlessly yield – let it be remembered we shall at all times strive to steer clear of PERSONAL SCURRILITY (sic). Our pages shall never be made the channel of private resentment.

Despite such assurances, that wasn’t quite the case. The editor was sued by a politician for writing that his pockmarked face was due to “the commission of sin in early life and the effects of mercury”. Sex and other bodily functions – the more disgusting the better – have always been used to bring down those at the top of the political tree.

The editor was charged and gaoled for editing an obscene publication. He could not get legal representation because the great and the good of the colony closed ranks against this “worthless fellow” who, according to them, raked “up the faults and frailties of individuals with a view to extort money, and to shock the decorum and undermine the sociality of the community”.

The reactions of the worthies then and now were pretty much the same.

So we can now say that Kenny is not a “dog f.ker” [sic]. I use that last noun for it was quoted again by The Australian in its coverage this week. Despite all the outrage, the newspaper still uses this lewd term rather than some more modest euphemism such as the Sydney Morning Herald’s “sex with dog joke”.

Thus, the association of Kenny and dog f.ker may last longer than he wishes. Maybe he should have laughed it off as Mark Scott did yesterday when Julian Morrow tweeted a picture of him humping a hamster.

Mark Rolfe does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Review: In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 06:25

It is nearly 50 years since Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower’s previous novel The Watch Tower appeared. Why, after producing four novels between 1957 and 1966, did she stop writing? Or at least stop publishing, apart from a couple of short stories and reviews?

The forthcoming publication of In Certain Circles provides no answers, though ample proof of what readers have missed during this long silence. In their publicity sheet, Harrower’s publisher Text advises that the novel, completed in 1971, was “withdrawn from publication at the last moment”. The manuscript was stored in the National Library.

In 2013 Harrower allowed Michael Heyward of Text, who had been reissuing her novels, to read it. Now other admirers of her work are finally able to.

Like Harrower’s first novel, Down in the City, and The Watch Tower, In Certain Circles is set in Sydney. Like them, it is concerned with differences in class and opportunity, especially the ways in which these come to play out in a marriage. Unlike them, however, it has a central female character who initially recalls Jane Austen’s Emma, “handsome, clever and rich”.

Elizabeth Harrower’s novel In Certain Circles will be published next month. Text Publishing

With a classic three-part structure of introduction, development and climax, In Certain Circles opens just after the end of the second world war. We are introduced to the Howards and their large “stone house on the north side of Sydney Harbour”. Both are biologists, and journalists find Mrs Howard “a useful example of a woman who combined a successful career with a happy home life”.

Russell, their son, has returned home seemingly unaffected by his time as a prisoner of war. Zoe, their 17-year-old daughter, has been brought up to believe that she is “remarkable”. Since Zoe is an excellent student, winner of sailing competitions and beginning to excel as a photographer, Harrower provides support for this, though also gentle irony at Zoe’s naivety.

We are also introduced to another brother and sister, Stephen and Anna Quayle, whose lives have been drastically changed by the accidental death of both parents. Brought up in Parramatta by an uncle preoccupied with his neurasthenic wife, Stephen is a salesman while Anna is destined to “turn into one of those clerks, working to eat”. Despite their differences, Zoe is attracted as well as challenged by Stephen, “the first man ever to judge her”.

Part 2 opens some eight years later.

Mrs Howard’s death has brought Zoe home from Europe, where she has become a successful photographer. Her relationship with a much older film director has opened the way to a career in that area. But after meeting Stephen again, she decides to marry him and stay in Sydney. Meanwhile, Anna has escaped poverty by marrying a musician, who dies soon after. Russell has married Lily, his childhood sweetheart, and they have twin daughters.

Although Mrs Howard may have been able to combine marriage and a career, the younger women are not so lucky. By Part 3, Zoe is 40 and we are in the late 1960s. While the widowed Anna has found success as a potter, Zoe has devoted herself to trying to make Stephen happy. Lily has sacrificed her academic career for her daughters, who she hopes will become doctors. Instead, she is devastated when they win ballet scholarships and leave for England.

Elizabeth Harrower. Text Publishing

Harrower’s novels were well-received at the time of publication, but did not win substantial critical attention until taken up by feminist critics from the 1980s. While she has never claimed to be a feminist, her novels have always emphasised gender as well as class.

In contrast, her counterpart Thea Astley initially felt that she needed to write as a man to be taken seriously. She won the Miles Franklin Award three times from 1962-72, all with novels featuring male protagonists.

In Certain Circles takes us back to this decade, a time when it was still assumed that women would give up work when they married. As Zoe exclaims towards the end of the novel:

“What makes men superior is that they don’t – on the whole – stop functioning forever because of another person. They lack this built-in handicap, and are they lucky!”

The novel as a whole, however, questions the absoluteness of Zoe’s view, suggesting that some women can overcome this handicap. And the final outcomes for her, Lily and Anna are positive when compared to the situations of female characters at the end of Harrower’s earlier novels.

Why then was the novel withdrawn at the last minute? The plot device that provokes the climax is a little improbable. Russell is a rather undeveloped character, especially in comparison with Stephen. Unlike the difficult husbands in Harrower’s earlier novels, we see that he is also a victim.

Reading In Certain Circles gave me the thrill that only comes from the work of a major novelist. Are there other Harrower novels in the vaults? I certainly hope so.


In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower is published by Text on April 23. Details here.


Are you an academic or researcher? Would you like to review something for The Conversation? Contact the Arts + Culture editor.

Elizabeth Webby does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Re-designing food systems

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 06:08

Victoria Market in Melbourne. Jonathan Lin/Flickr

As a foodie, but also a vegetarian, I am always seeking alternative food systems that are healthy, farmer-friendly, community-focused, and easy to use —attributes that also make food systems sustainable. My biological anthropology professor used to tell the class that once we humans developed agriculture, it all went downhill.

According to archaeologists, the domestication of plants and animals occurred around 12,000 years B.C.E (Before Common Era). After this, human populations grew exponentially, but to the detriment of human health and of social relations based on equality. We got more diseases and nutrient deficiencies. We began to treat each other pretty badly.

Researchers still do not know why our human ancestors shifted from gathering and hunting to agricultural systems. But they have speculated on what might have been some of the underlying values that changed our relationships to our food systems:
- Security of food, through the manipulation of the natural world;
- Efficiency in the effort to gather and prepare foods, with the increase in leisure time, and
- Wealth accumulation at the level of individuals, households, and family lines.

Remarkably over the last 10,000 years or so, these values have only intensified in regards to our food systems.

Food security has become a field of global strategic studies at universities such as University of Adelaide and Stanford University. Efficiency remains the primary driver of the industrialised food system. Although last year in The Conversation, Adrian Morley argued that industrialised food systems are extremely inefficient when it comes to wastage:

According to a 2011 study from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, approximately two thirds of food waste in Europe occurs in the supply chain between production and retail. In developing nations this proportion can be far greater … countries in South East Asia can lose as much as 80% of their rice crop to wastage.

Carting of Fruit and Vegetables at Victoria Market. Matt Chen/Flickr

The social inequalities of wealth accumulation inherent have been exacerbated in our current food systems. Nicholas Rose and Claire Parfitt of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance describe the extent in their 2012 article for The Conversation:

Food has become primarily a source of capital accumulation and profit, rather than a basic human need. Grains that might otherwise go to dinner tables are used to feed more lucrative biofuels and livestock markets. Food that won’t generate a profit is dumped by food retailers who lock their bins to keep out foragers.

Alternative models and shifting values

According to Body + Soul online, there are several alternative food systems: slow food, sustainable food, locavores, organic food, vegan/vegetarian, and freeganism. Each one aligns with a set of shifting values regarding food security, efficiency, and wealth inequality.

The original intent of industrialised production and the controlled global distribution of food were to increase food security in the post WWII period. As made evident in the following advertisement of Litton Industries of food preparation in the 1960s, industrialised production was the only “civilised” approach to food.

Litton Industries' history of food preparation.

The negative environmental impacts of the chemicals used to eliminate pests and the detrimental health impacts of contaminated food have led to resurgences in models of organic and sustainable food production. For the majority of human history, these were the only models of food systems. Australia first adopted its National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Products in 1992. Last year, it released the third edition.

Vegetarian and veganism is as old as human history. Yet they represent an alternative set of values regarding relationship between humans and animals.

The slow food movement, including the locavores movement provide a direct counter to the emphasis on efficiency in how we gather and prepare food. According to the Slow Food website, the movement was established in 1989 by Carlo Petrini and a group of activists with the adoption of the slow food manifesto:

Against those - or, rather, the vast majority - who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of an adequate portion of sensual gourmandise pleasures, to be taken with slow and prolonged enjoyment.

Freeganism is an anti-consumerist movement, in which people seek to live off the food that supermarkets discard. In 2006, The Age did a report on the freeganism movement in Australia. The reporter followed three 20-year olds dumpster diving in Melbourne. When explaining the allure of dumpstering, one of the young men expressed his critique of the consumerism and inequalities built into the industrialised food system:

What’s better about dumpstering is that you’re not buying into that whole process of consumption. Even buying organic food involves being part of the consumer economy. Dumpstering really does break the consumer chain.

Kelly Cube, an intermediate model

Although I dumpster dived for donuts in my 20s, I am not radical enough for freeganism in my 40s. While I shop at the organic stores in Prahran Market, I cannot get off the frenzy track enough to do more than reheat meals, instead of cooking them from scratch. I rent my home, so I cannot set up a garden in my yard or even window ledges. Is there an alternative food system that might work more for me and people like me who are single or a couple without children, interested in sustainable food, but do not have the time to prepare a complete meal every day?

One of the more interesting new models that I have come across is Kelly Cube:

Melbourne’s gourmet Ready-To-Cook Meal Kit containing all the fresh, raw ingredients direct from local farmers and producers. You cook a restaurant quality meal with the simple and fun recipe.

Kelly Cube from paddock to plate concept. Cameron Joss/by permission

The founder, Cameron Joss hangs out at one of my neighbourhood cafes. So I recently had the opportunity to discuss with him the design of the Kelly Cube as a product and a service that acts as alternative model to industrialised food production.

Initiated in 2011 as a means to support local Australian farmers, Kelly Cube combines the values of the slow food, locavores, and sustainable food systems. Cameron explains:

The underlying factor is that all of the produce has to be Australian. As much as possible, it has to be local. Every once in a while, you might have to get limes from Queensland because that is where they grow them. Our boundary is Australia, but we try to have everything in our Kelly Cube as local to Melbourne as possible.

The ready-to-cook meal kit comes complete with all the fresh locally sourced vegetables, meats, spices, and oils in exact portion to either a one person or two person meal recipe. This is designed to reduce wastage and simplify the decision-making of meal planning, while allowing people to trace from where their food is coming.

Aligning with the principles of sustainability, the Kelly Cube box of the kit is reusable and recyclable. Cameron explains the design of the box:

It can be quite deceiving because you using a lot less space in your fridge. In actuality the box is transparent so that you can see all the food inside. The box is designed to make the produce last longer, even the herbs which last for only one week. You use everything in that box and there is no wastage.

What I find most intriguing about the design of the Kelly Cube is what Cameron describes as its “fun factor.”

The different recipes provide people a variety of tastes with high quality produce. Busy people can re-engage with the sensual experience of cooking, but taking no more than 15 minutes of their evening. This is what makes this design seem like an intermediate model to the aspirations of the slow food movement, which requires greater leisure time than I possess.

Designed “for the busy professionals who don’t have time to shop and don’t have access to a fresh food grocer after 6:00 PM when they get off from work,” the Kelly Cube makes it easy by doing all the hard work of pre-preparing the ingredients so that one may only need to chop the garlic and onions, combine the spices and the oils for the sauce, add it to the sauteed chicken, and voila dinner is served. Kelly Cube is conveniently an online business, so one can order a weekly meal plan at one’s leisure and have it delivered once a week.

The Kelly Cube is just one of the many new designs that creative people are offering to to try and make our food system more sustainable, efficient, and equitable. Our survival depends on more people following these alternative models.

This week, The Guardian reported on a recent NASA-partially funded study that modelled the collapse of civilisations due to “unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.”

These two factors are the direct outcomes of our shift to agricultural production. It is not possible to go back to gathering and hunting, but we might be able to find more intermediate solutions that harken to the ecological and social equality of that food system as we continue to re-design our current agricultural one.

Elizabeth Dori Tunstall does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

From conspiracy theories to climate change denial, a cognitive psychologist explains

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 03:42

Stephan Lewandowsky, chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, answered questions posed by the public on Reddit. The Conversation has curated the highlights.

Conspiracy theories

Under what conditions do conspiracies spread? What can one do to convince people to be more sceptical of extraordinary claims in conspiracy theories?

In societies that are not transparent and less democratic, conspiracy theories flourish because the government cannot be trusted. In general, the people who believe in conspiracy theories are low on trust and feel that they have been treated badly by life or society.

Countering this is very difficult, but education and reducing inequality will go a long way.

Can you name one conspiracy theory that turned out to be true?

The tobacco industry is now known to have “conspired” against the public in their efforts to undermine the well-established scientific evidence linking smoking to ill health. One of the US judges famously said: “The US tobacco industry has engaged in a criminal conspiracy for more than 50 years.”

What kind of cognitive traits does conspiratorial thinking exhibit?

There are some researchers who have linked conspiracy beliefs to personality variables. So yes, it is quite possibly a stable characteristic of some sort. The most striking thing is that conspiratorial thinking can be self-contradictory, for example people think MI6 killed Princess Diana while also thinking that she faked her own death.

To what extent do you see climate conspiracists denying climate change science as opposed to denying the feasibility of providing an economically acceptable solution to reversing its effects?

Very interesting question. I cannot be certain because I do not have data that speak to this issue directly. However, in general, conspiracism is just one form of “motivated cognition”. There are others, such as worldview defence. The reason worldviews are inflamed by climate change is because of the threat of government interference with the free market that might result from mitigation efforts. It is for this reason that people who cherish free markets are less inclined to oppose mitigation when it is framed as providing an opportunity for the nuclear industry than when it is framed as pollution cuts.

Bottom line: It is pretty clear that fear of the solutions drives much opposition to the science. This manifests itself in motivated cognition, and one form of that is conspiracism. That said, it is notable that other science denial – for instance HIV-AIDS – also involves conspiracism, and the links to worldviews are less clear there.

Climate change denial

How important are political ideologies in understanding the rejection of climate science?

I can ask people four questions about the free market and I have roughly 67% “confidence” (that is, variance) in their attitudes towards climate change.

As a conservative, I find myself in the frustrating position of being one of the few among my inner circle who is not a dogmatic climate change sceptic. It’s happening and humanity is contributing in a major way. Something that does frustrate me, however, is misinformation about exactly what steps would need to be taken to seriously combat global warming effects. What are your thoughts on this?

Recycling is largely a farce. Yes, it is better to recycle that soda bottle than to throw it out. But what is far better is to reuse it or not use it in the first place. But there’s no political will to move the needle on the economic to support such a system. (I do try to recycle anyway, by the way. I just don’t pretend that it makes any significant difference.)

Gasoline use is even worse. The fact is that, without abundant sources of non-fossil-fuel power, we are going to burn every last bit of carbon we can pull out of the earth’s crust. Me driving an electric vehicle (which I don’t, by the way) just makes it that much easier for someone on the other side of the world to fill up their gas tank.

I think there is, however, some utility in the example that it sets. If my vegan friends make a dinner that is fantastic and satisfying, maybe their decreased resource consumption gives me some ideas how to reduce my consumption of meat. My neighbour’s electric vehicle might convince me that I don’t need to drive a gas-guzzling SUV, and might help incrementally advance the technology to make a wholesale change in power for transportation possible.

Overall, the micro-level stuff is small potatoes, and won’t make a difference without the macro stuff. But I think the micro stuff can help sell the macro stuff, and that’s the reason it matters.

Do you think that people with same views (no matter how absurd) will easily find each other and gather around somewhere?

Yes, there are cyberghettos and clusterings. This is a problem all in itself already, but to make matters worse, it creates an incentive for politicians to engage in more extremist dialogue. Work by economists has shown that it is advantageous for politicians to be extreme if messages to their followers remained inside an echo chamber. As a consequence, whereas politicians used to compete for the “median voter”, it is now advantageous to be extremist. This has undesirable consequences for us all.

How much of an effect has science denial had on the progress of the science itself?

It is difficult to quantify, but there is some evidence to suggest that science denial has affected not just public discourse but also science itself. For example, an analysis of media coverage found that the IPCC reports in 2007 were more likely to underestimate than overestimate the risk from climate change. A more recent analysis expanded on this topic and argued that scientists' natural reticence biases them towards cautious estimates rather than alarmism, a tendency they call erring on the side of least drama.

Is it a waste of my time trying to convince those that don’t believe in climate change or should I just focus on helping those that do become more educated?

The answer is pretty nuanced: There are some people who are so entrenched in their contrarian views that there is little point in talking to them about anything other than solutions. In the end, it doesn’t matter what a person thinks about climate change if they put a solar panel on their roof – and who wouldn’t in Geraldton, Western Australia?

However, there are also people who really want to know more, and whose reticence to accept the science arises from lack of information. I would send those people to Skeptical Science. Differentiating between entrenched contrarians and those who are open to knowing more is challenging because sometimes it is difficult to know at the outset.

What kind of dialogue may perhaps serve to move the national discussion in a more productive direction, given your insights into the psychology of denial?

My views are: first, the public is currently being denied the right to be fully informed about the risks it is facing. Second, there are many reasons for this, from “doubt-mongering” to ideologically-motivated denial. Third, we know from much research on misinformation that people cannot dismiss “noise” or misinformation unless they are given a reason to do so. This is why it is important for the public to understand who the people are who oppose climate science.

In a nutshell: underscore the consensus which will move all but the hardcore, and identify who the hardcore contrarians are so the remainder of the population can make an educated choice about who to listen to.

I will graduate this year with an MSc in Climate Change. What should someone with my skills be doing in order to do a job which benefits the planet?

I think that scientists themselves could refine their messaging. Often they put the uncertainty first, without saying what we do know or without saying that uncertainty is a compelling reason to mitigate. That said, also remember that the problem is compounded by the role of worldviews. To overcome that, emphasising the consensus is only a partial tool.

Stephan Lewandowsky receives funding from the Australian Research Council, the World University Network, and the Royal Society.

Betting terminals targeted by high street money launderers

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 02:27

The third season of Breaking Bad, the American TV drama series about a crystal meth dealer in Albuquerque, contains a key scene about the business side of an emerging crime empire. Here, the unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman regales fledgling drug entrepreneur Jesse Pinkman with a step-by-step, demonstration – using small props – in the financial sleight of hand required to launder crime profits.

Goodman’s practical demo complete, he proudly concludes: “Your filthy drug money has been transformed into nice, clean, taxable income brought to you by a savvy investment in a thriving business.”

The thriving business in Goodman’s illustration is a nail salon. The scene demonstrates how the seemingly unremarkable setting of a manicure bar can form an essential cog in organised crime.

The salon’s true purpose is not to provide pristine manicures but to perform the function of a “shell company”: a legal business which can provide a legitimate disguise for laundering criminal profits.

White-collar crime pundits (whether commentators or academics) have tended to overlook such medium to small-scale laundering operations. Or what can be termed micro-money laundering, where the profits are locally generated and financial transfers are conducted mano a mano.

Macro to micro-laundering

Most research into money laundering concentrates on the multinational cartels that use global financial systems and institutions to clean their billions. And for good reason, too. The UN estimates that currently the amount of money laundered globally in one year amounts to somewhere between US$800 billion and US$2 trillion – or 2-5% of global GDP. Most of this laundered money is generated by organised crime groups, whose illicit operations are global in scope and reach.

By contrast localised, cash-based, micro-money laundering has largely been overlooked. However, recent technological developments have ushered in laundering innovations closer to home: the high street.

Fixed odds

Betting shops have long moved beyond their core business of horses and greyhounds. There are now 34,000 electronic gambling machines (mainly roulette) in the UK, known as fixed odds betting terminals, or FOBTs. Recent media panics have lamented their addictive nature, describing them as the crack cocaine of gambling. This addictive nature – albeit unproven – is down to how quickly and flexibly users can place bets, anything from £1 to £100.

These terminals don’t just help gamblers part with their cash – they also help drug dealers launder their gains. A dealer feeds their cash into a fixed-odds roulette game and continues laying bets – some they win, some they lose – until all their money is gone and 10-40% of their initial stake had been lost. But that’s not a problem, as the losses are simply considered a “laundering fee”.

Crucially, the remaining stake will then be returned with a receipt which means, to paraphrase Saul Goodman, the dealer’s filthy drug money has been turned into nice clean cash. Thus if they are stopped by law enforcement officers he or she can account for the wads of cash in their pockets.

Use of these terminals is complete anonymous, and betting shop owners are only required by law to report or investigate individual punters placing more than £10,000 into these terminals.

Micro-laundering as micro-development

Anti-gambling pressure groups have demanded a ban on FOBTs. The gambling industry’s representative body, the Association of British Bookmakers, has countered by claiming that a ban on FOBTs would threaten 15,000 jobs and the closure of 3,000 high street betting shops.

These betting terminals have indeed proved highly profitable, contributing around £1.4 billion to the bookmaking business each year. The number of criminals and drug dealers using these terminals is less clear but it has been estimated that criminals are willing to pay betting shops 5-10% of their profits to launder cash through FOBTs (an average cost/loss for most laundering operations according to research). Even the government now wants a piece of the action, with the budget raising tax duty on FOBTs from 20% to 25%.

All this suggests that micro-money laundering may benefit not only illicit businesses but also the licit high street economy. In fact, a joint report by the Cabinet Office’s strategy unit and the Home Office in 2009 revealed that 25,000 to 30,000 people are involved in the “long tail” of the organised crime business in Britain, valued at more than £30 billion a year. If “organised crime” were a company, it would be the sixth largest private employer in the country. The process of micro-money laundering, in other words, has beneficial economic consequences of an unintended kind.

It would be shortsighted to think that fixed odds betting terminals are the sole means by which small to medium-sized criminal businesses launder their ill gotten gains. But where are the alternative methods, or new frontiers, in micro-money laundering? A report in 2011 by the market analysts Mintel revealed that nail bars are the most rapidly growing business outlets on the UK high street. Surely a coincidence? Possibly a case of watching too much Breaking Bad.

Mike Marinetto does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

It's hard enough for women to report sexual abuse without the system letting them down

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 01:23

The recent publication of a serious case review into the suicide of Frances Andrade reveals how difficult it is for a sexual assault victim to stand and testify against an accuser in court. Keir Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions, has described the system as “barely fit for purpose for victims” and is currently in the process of drawing up a “victims’ charter” alongside justice campaigner Doreen Lawrence.

Andrade’s story is a tragic one. She took her own life in January 2013 having given evidence against Michael Brewer, who was subsequently found guilty of a series of sexual offences against Andrade when she was 14 and 15. His ex-wife Kay was also found guilty of indecently assaulting Andrade when she was 18. Andrade was a gifted violinist and Michael Brewer a music teacher at the prestigious – but clearly troubled – Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. Andrade disclosed the abuse to a friend only much later in 2011. The jury was not informed of her death until its members had returned their verdicts. On sentencing, the judge at the trial called Brewer a “predatory sex offender”.

Brewer was able to use his high status, reputation and regular access to one-on-one tuition to isolate and exploit his victim. An abuse of position that can also happen in sports coaching.

Andrade’s case wasn’t just about the sexual abuse she suffered but about how the system let her down, as the serious case review makes clear:

The panel considered this was a suicide that could and should have been prevented. Mrs A had reasons to live and she continued to ask for help throughout this period … When historic cases of sexual abuse come to court, we ask former victims to stand up and lay bare details about their lives that are painful and intimate.

Criminal justice and mental health services should be able to provide a comprehensive and seamless support service to them throughout this process because, as this case demonstrates, historic abuse is always a present source of difficulty and distress to those who have been victimised.

Witness credibility

Andrade was sexually abused by a family member before she went to Chetham’s. The impact of sexual abuse is complex and clearly varies, but it can include self-harm, suicide attempts, long-term mental health problems such as depression, and sexualised behaviour in children. The trauma of abuse is such that survivors can often find it difficult to maintain appropriate boundaries. All of these were apparent in Andrade’s case, which made her more vulnerable to predators such as Brewer.

The aim of a serious case review, launched when a child or vulnerable adult dies or sustains serious injuries, and abuse or neglect is known or suspected, is to highlight the lessons that agencies like the police and social services need to learn to prevent them happening again. The review into Andrade’s death outlined the fact that she was a “vulnerable and intimidated witness”. This means that special arrangements could have been put in place, like allowing the witness to give evidence from behind a screen.

These types of measures are now commonly used in cases where children give evidence against adult abusers. But Andrade felt that if she accepted these measures her creditability as witness would be undermined and would make it more likely that Brewer would be acquitted. It is difficult to prove or disprove this, but the fact that Andrade felt it was a possibility highlights the pressures that victims in such cases face and clearly the support offered to witnesses is not adequate to overcome these barriers. She also believed that she could not begin psychotherapy until the trial was complete because she couldn’t discuss the issues involved – this was not the case.

The investigation of rape and sexual assault cases has definitely been improved since the infamous Thames Valley case in 1982 – the subject of Roger Graef’s fly-on-the-wall documentary Police, which showed officers verbally abusing a woman who was giving a statement. But there is a need for a wider recognition of the impact of sexual violence and the continuing focus, particularly in historic allegations, on the behaviour of the victims. Drug and alcohol abuse, for example, can be used as a way of undermining testimony, when in fact they may be linked to the experience of physical abuse.

The conclusions of the serious case review were unusually trenchant in Andrade’s case: her suicide was preventable and agencies should have done more to help a woman under such pressure (she had taken seven overdoses in the ten months prior to her death). The review also raised very important questions for the criminal justice system about how support for victims of sexual abuse could be improved. One suggestion is that expert witnesses appear in such cases to explain to the court the possible long-term impact of abuse and on victim behaviour.

The impact of feeling like you are a fantasist (as Andrade was accused of being in court), rather than a legitimate party with a claim, is an added blow.

Earlier this year Tracy Shelvey stepped off the roof of a shopping centre three days after a man was found not guilty of raping her. gave evidence in two trials in Manchester but stepped off the roof of a shopping centre three days after a man was found not guilty of raping her. Shelvey told a friend that she’d found the experience of court alarming and traumatic, and hadn’t been supported by the police.

Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement, a military policewoman, committed suicide in 2011 following a decision by the authorities not to prosecute two soldiers who she said alleged had raped her. The coroner concluded that bullying and the “lingering” effect of the alleged rape both played a role in her death and called for the Ministry of Defence to review its care for vulnerable soldiers.

These cases emphasise that the system is failing to support individuals when they approach authorities with allegations of sexual abuse, and that this lack of support can continue as cases go through the courts.

The bravery of Andrade in disclosing the abuse and sexual exploitation that occurred at Chetham’s and then confronting Brewer face-to-face in court can and should never be underestimated. If similar tragedies are to be avoided in future the recommendations of the review must be acted upon. And when it comes to the public blame game around rape and sexual abuse, perhaps we all need to think the recommendations, too.

Ian Cummins does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Hand out money with my mobile? I think I'm ready

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 01:09

A service is soon to launch in the UK that will enable us to transfer money to other people using just their name and mobile number. Paym is being hailed as a revolution in banking because you can pay people without needing to know their account number or sort code.

In many respects it is. Paym cuts out the need for a dash to a cash machine. Distance is also not an issue as you could easily top up your children’s bank balance when they are away from home, solving immediate financial dilemmas.

And the main security risk appears to come from user error – the one thing you yourself can actually control.

What is Paym?

As of 29 April, customers of nine banks including Barclays, Halifax, TSB and Santander can use Paym. Although each will have their own approach to offering the service, the principle remains the same for all. As long as you have registered your mobile number and the receiver of the payment has also registered their mobile number, you should be able to use an app on your phone or an internet banking option to make the payment.

It sounds simple because for you, the customer, it is supposed to be.

This simplicity has made systems similar to Paym phenomenally successful in many parts of the world. M-Pesa is one particularly popular version that has been operating for several years in India and Kenya.

As technology evolved over the past decades, the typical cabled telecommunications structure used in developed nations such as the UK, the US or Australia couldn’t be delivered on the same terms for many African, Asian and South American regions.

While many western nations had an existing infrastructure that had evolved over 100 years and could be adapted to make room for more cables, the costs of bringing it in afresh in many developing countries was prohibitively expensive.

More recent developments in mobile telecommunications such as 3G and 4G networks, on the other hand, are easier to deploy. The cable costs are low and by strategically positioning the mobile towers needed to run the network, you can reach a large population of customers.

The use and trust of this technology in developing countries shows us how it could offer interesting benefits to new markets. We all make one-off payments, where the speed of technology could easily beat the slowness of cheques.

Parents probably recall when they have to help out a hapless teen or university student with a cash top-up when they are away from the nest, making Paym a potentially essential service. We could pay babysitters, lend a tenner to a friend and cover school trips for our younger children when they’ve forgotten to mention that it’s today.

Additionally, we could find that sole traders, market stalls and micro businesses thrive, knowing that they could have a way for a casual customer who otherwise did not have the cash in their pocket to make an immediate transaction for that artisan product. In fact I am sure that entrepreneurs out there could find other ways of offering services and encourage Paym style payments.

And it is a free service

Paym assures us that there is little risk in using this service but, as with all financial transactions, it pays to be cautious. Card fraud is a known issue, chip and pin is not infallible and there have been issues with some retailers when using contactless payments.

There is a transaction limit of £20 and three transactions a day on contactless payments. That means there is still the potential for a £60 fraud to occur. While this is a relatively small amount, it could still cause financial problems.

With Paym, depending on your account and the agreement you have made with your bank, you can transfer up to £250 per day. That’s a significant amount of money if something were to go awry.

For a start, you must take care when entering the mobile number of the recipient. That seems obvious but mobile numbers are 11 digits in length and we’ve all typed in the wrong number at some point. You should also include the name of the recipient in the transaction, via your smartphone or web browser application. But as we all know, there are many John Smiths out there, so the probability exists that you could pay someone other than your friend John Smith.

But because the UK service links bank accounts, users will avoid the most serious type of crime that affects M-Pesa – the robbery or deception of the agents used to deposit money into the system.

With Paym, would have to have knowledge of the passwords and other security mechanisms to use your banking app or online account so you are reasonably well protected in this respect. As you already are already a bank customer, the service like cheque banking, contactless or chip-and-pin is free for you to use.

Should you use it?

This is certainly a payment technology worth trying. I like using contactless in cafes, for example. Paym seems like a useful way for me to give money to family and friends and I can see potentially useful applications for charities, schools, community groups and microbusinesses too.

If you intend to use it, practice with small amounts. Don’t suddenly pay £200 to someone. Give them a very small amount, eventually the opportunity will present itself. Check and double check their phone number. In all transactions, the best way to make sure you have the right number and name is to give them a call on the number you are going to use. This will considerably reduce the risk of unintended errors.

Andrew Smith does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Blueprint for UK to leave EU shows just how hard it would be

The Conversation - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 00:29

Congratulations to Iain Mansfield for winning the “Brexit” essay competition. He is an old friend. We have a high regard for him, and even commented on an early draft of the paper. But we think his analysis of how the UK might leave the EU is deeply misleading.

His essay is designed to be a concrete plan for how to leave. In it, he spells out a series of conditions for the UK to be able to retain full access to the EU single market while reasserting regulatory sovereignty, and which, if satisfied, might yield an economic gain of 0.1% of GDP. In fact this is best seen as a set of aspirations for a deal that is unlikely to be available. We would argue that, read carefully, the essay exposes not so much how a straightforward strategy is available, but rather how unlikely it is that this could ever be achieved.

The key point is that while the EU’s tariffs are low, it does not permit goods to freely enter the single market unless they comply with all its mandatory standards. Countries such as Norway that have joined the EU in the European Economic Area not only have duty free market access but are also exempt from certain technical barriers to trade. However, the condition of this is that European Economic Area members agree to apply all relevant EU legislation without having any say in its design.

Striking deals

In contrast, a country in the European Free Trade Association but not in the EEA has to negotiate individually for market access. For this reason Switzerland felt obliged to sign a series of “bilateral agreements” after voters rejected EEA membership back in 1992.

These commit Switzerland to adopting EU laws (outside agriculture), seemingly a-la-carte but actually as a package, if it is not to lose fully free access to the single market. Its recent rejection of the free movement of workers allows the EU to repudiate other parts of the deal, and even before any quotas have been put on, the EU has taken measures on higher education and research policy cooperation.

Mansfield’s Brexit essay calls for negotiation of a deal “midway between Switzerland and Turkey” (Serbia perhaps?). Turkey has a customs union agreement that obliges it both to accept the EU non agricultural acquis – the collection of common rights and obligations – and the EU’s external trade policy. We think he really means he wants a variant of the Swiss option, not a variant of Turkey. Only a country that signs up to most of the EU acquis can get free access to the single market for its goods and services and Mansfield accepts on financial services the need for “potentially accepting a certain degree of regulatory cooperation”.

Worth noting too that members of the Eastern Partnership countries (a model to be copied, according to Mansfield) have to accept two thirds of the acquis, which of course they have no say in setting, and it is the EU not the partner who decides which rules have to be accepted.

Too many assumptions

The deal he is proposing is for the UK to keep access to the single market while deciding which EU rules it wants to keep and which it does not. No-one has ever been able to this, not even Switzerland. It is a maximalist negotiating goal that is not for the UK to choose at will. The implication is that the UK could choose which EU rules it would accept and secure free access to the EU market.

Tied to this is the assumption that the UK could choose which EU external Free Trade Agreements it would remain a party to, and that any country negotiating a new agreement with the EU would give Britain the same deal. Mansfield assumes that all countries that have a free trade deal with the EU would treat a post-Brexit UK as if it still were a member. Mansfield states: “For countries with which the EU is close to concluding negotiations the UK should seek to negotiate a side-agreement with the country concerned, whereby the UK was treated as part of the EU for the purposes of that specific trade agreement.” And what if the US declined to make such a side-agreement?

Mansfield is very frank in saying that a case for Brexit rests on the politics, not on the predicted 0.1% of GDP gain which is in his quantitative analysis, but he is making some very optimistic political judgements about the willingness of the other EU member states to give a Brexiting UK what it wants, and the willingness of the rest of the world to treat the UK as if it were still in the EU. And as Iain points out for most of the acquis and financial regulation we’d have lost our voice in legislation but still have to comply. Iain has done a good job in demonstrating how hard it would be to generate his “best case” option.

Peter Holmes receives funding from DFID, DBIS, FCO, European Commission.

Jim Rollo receives funding from DFID, DBIS, FCO, European Commission.

Michael Gasiorek receives funding from DFID, DBIS, FCO, European Commission.

Ed Davey's claim that Scottish energy bills would rise after independence is a fantasy

The Conversation - Wed, 16/04/2014 - 23:46

The twin goals of UK energy policy should be to ensure security of supply for households and businesses, and to ensure the electricity we use is affordable. Unfortunately, the current UK coalition government is failing on both fronts.

In particular its flagship initiative, Electricity Market Reform, has led to a hiatus in energy investment. This is very bad news for England. In effect we are now seeing a critical reduction in our spare energy capacity, which will eventually see electricity costs spiral out of control. For London this might well mean the lights going out post-2015.

Self-sufficient Scotland

As Scotland exports approximately one quarter of the electricity it generates, this is not such a problem for Edinburgh. In recent years this has been bolstered by a truly world class renewables industry. Scotland now produces nearly the equivalent of 50% of its electricity from renewable energy sources such as onshore wind and hydro. This will increase to around 70% by 2017.

I strongly reject Ed Davey’s announcement that if Scotland votes yes then Scottish electricity bills would increase. This can be seen in a comprehensive report that I published with colleagues from a number of universities from across the United Kingdom in December.

To summarise some very complex arguments, as a result of the coalition government’s decision to fund new nuclear build, we found that a Scottish government committed to no nuclear build would actually see reductions in consumer electricity bills compared to the rest of the United Kingdom. Scottish consumers would not be subsidising the hundreds of billions of pounds of investment that new English nuclear power stations require.

DECC’s big budget drain

Already the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) spends £2.5 billion or 42% of its annual budget on existing nuclear legacy. Of that, £1.6bn is spent on managing the waste at Sellafield alone.

In its misguided aspirations the coalition government is now writing a blank cheque for new nuclear. At a time of unprecedented financial austerity this is somewhat astonishing.

Under no scenario can I see electricity bills in an independent Scotland increasing along the lines outlined by Ed Davey. Even without an integrated electricity market, Scotland would be able to sell its electricity to England at commercial rates. England currently has to resource much of its electricity requirement from Scotland; there is no alternative source for the majority of it. It is pure fantasy on the part of Ed Davey to suggest otherwise.

Scotland offers an excellent model of how to deliver a world-class energy policy. The coalition government could learn much from us.

This piece is one of two that The Conversation has published on this subject today. The other can be be read here.

Peter Strachan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

ICAC has highlighted that unsavoury intersection where business, political donations/gifts, and lobbying meet

The Conversation - Wed, 16/04/2014 - 23:40

Barry O'Farrell brought on his own problems by his emphatic denial at the ICAC hearing. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Barry O'Farrell had no option but to resign his premiership, given his emphatic denials of receiving a $3000 bottle of Grange from the chief of the company lobbying intensively for a water contract. Once his warm thank you letter surfaced, he was done for.

But how come he dug himself into this hole?

One school of thought is that O'Farrell, despite his clean reputation, deliberately sought to mislead the Independent Commission Against Corruption in his Tuesday evidence, trying to cover up the gift, which he had not declared on the appropriate registers.

To intentionally mislead ICAC, however, would hardly have been rational behaviour from a man previously regarded as having good political antennae.

O'Farrell would have known that if his story came unstuck, he’d be in an untenable position. He was giving evidence on oath.

Also, ICAC had already made it clear it didn’t believe he was involved in any corruption in relation to events surrounding Australian Water Holdings and its pursuit of the Sydney Water contract (a position re-asserted by counsel assisting the inquiry, Geoffrey Watson even after the wine debacle and O'Farrell’s resignation). O'Farrell did not give AWH CEO and Liberal fund raiser Nick Di Girolamo any favours for the 1959 Grange.

If O'Farrell remembered the wine and had said so at ICAC, he’d have suffered political pain, but could have weathered it. If he’d said he didn’t recall but might have received the bottle, he could have survived, even with his thank you note surfacing.

Instead he not only denied the gift when before ICAC but was repeatedly emphatic at a subsequent news conference and in a statement that insisted “the 1959 Grange was not received by me or my wife”.

In favour of his “massive memory fail” claim is that the alternative explanation – that he knowingly advanced a lie in, at it were, capital letters - seems even less credible.

That leaves the question of why he didn’t declare the wine at the time, when it obviously was in his mind. This makes no sense. He had just become premier – there was every reason to follow the rules. He told ICAC he’d have known a 1959 bottle should be declared.

A shocked Tony Abbott said of O'Farrell’s decision to resign: “We are seeing an act of integrity, an act of honour, the like of which we have rarely seen in Australian politics.”

AAP/Julian Smith

Despite this strong show of solidarity Abbott and O'Farrell were neither ideological soul mates nor close friends. Abbott was angered by O'Farrell’s signing up to Julia Gillard’s Gonski package before the election; the NSW government played hardball over Gonski later too. O'Farrell has been critical of the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Infrastructure was another matter. O'Farrell had been due to be with Abbott for Wednesday’s announcement of the federal package accompanying the proposed second Sydney airport.

A stunned NSW government now has to get itself a new premier, with the options Treasurer Mike Baird and Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian.

The two - both in their 40s and with backgrounds in banking - are good friends, which makes a contest awkward. Both have been competent ministers. Baird is a mate of Abbott’s. His state electorate is within Abbott’s federal seat, and they sometimes surf together. Berejiklian is good mates with federal treasurer Joe Hockey – both are of Armenian extraction.

Berejiklian is from the party’s left. Baird – although son of former state and federal politician Bruce Baird, a prominent moderate - is more conservative, especially on social issues (an Anglican, he is very religious).

Abbott would prefer Baird to be the successor, given the political hue of Berejiklian. Baird was discussing his position on Wednesday night with his family, ahead of Thursday’s party meeting.

It will take a while to judge what federal implications there might be out of the O'Farrell resignation.

O'Farrell’s falling on his sword is likely to make things harder for Arthur Sinodinos - who has stood aside as federal assistant treasurer - to resume his position if there is criticism of him from ICAC. Sinodinos was a director and then chairman of AWH as well as state treasurer of the Liberals but denied knowing of the company’s donations to the party. His performance in the witness box was not impressive, although he is not accused of any wrongdoing.

The ICAC investigations, which had originally been focused on corruption in Labor, have now engulfed the Liberals, undermining the NSW government’s ability to fully exploit Labor’s record at next year’s election.

The spectacular hits scored by ICAC have produced a backlash from some commentators and politicians, with accusations that it is a ‘'star chamber’‘. (The critics don’t include O'Farrell, who specifically reaffirmed his support for ICAC.)

There is no doubt ICAC is more freewheeling than a court. But if we take the cases of O'Farrell and Sinodinos, is there any reason to blame ICAC? The demise of the well-regarded O'Farrell is most unfortunate, but he brought on his own destruction by his emphatic denials. As for Sinodinos, ICAC exposed that someone who should have had his eye on what was happening in a company that was acting improperly apparently, on his own account, did not.

What the ICAC inquiry into the AWH affair has highlighted is that unsavoury intersection where business, political donations/gifts, and lobbying meet. In this it has done a public service.

Abbott some time ago clamped down on party officials also being federal lobbyists. O'Farrell banned success fees. Clearly, further action is needed at the state level and that will be a challenge for the new premier.

More generally, the lobbying industry and the influence of big money in politics are becoming serious issues for the integrity of the Australian democratic process even when actual corruption is not involved.

O'Farrell legislated a ban on donations from corporations and associations. It was an obvious strike against Labor and the unions, but would have had a cleansing effect on the conservative side as well. The High Court struck down the legislation, in a case brought by the unions.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast here.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Focus on attachment in parenting policy is misplaced

The Conversation - Wed, 16/04/2014 - 23:26

A recent report from the Sutton Trust is the latest in a line of recommendations for family policy to focus on promoting secure attachment between parents and their children.

What puzzles me is why the Sutton Trust, politicians and organisations seeking to influence government policy on children and families are so interested in academic research on attachment. I’m sure these efforts are well-intentioned, but they stem from a misunderstanding of the scientific evidence.

Attachment is a very specific measure of the quality of the parent–child relationship. To know a child’s attachment security, you have to conduct a formal observational assessment, which can’t be done until the child is at least 12 months old.

The “gold standard” measure of attachment is the “strange situation procedure”, which classifies toddlers into one of four attachment categories. These are decided on the basis of how they respond when reunited with the parent after a brief separation.

Securely attached toddlers respond positively to the parent, insecure-avoidant toddlers tend to ignore the parent, and insecure-resistant toddlers get very distressed by the separation, but can’t be comforted by the parent. Finally, toddlers in the insecure-disorganised group show odd, contradictory behaviour when reunited, and may appear afraid of the parent.

Not abnormal

Let’s first correct some basic errors in the Sutton Trust report that were also repeated in an associated article on The Conversation. One would at least expect the figures on the percentages of children falling into the four attachment categories to be reported accurately, but they were not.

The correct figures for middle-class families are 15% insecure-avoidant, 9% insecure-resistant and 15% insecure-disorganised. The take-home message here should be that insecure attachment isn’t abnormal – it’s not even unusual.

It’s also not the case that inconsistent and unpredictable parenting relates to insecure-disorganised attachment. As yet, we don’t fully understand the pathways leading to this type of attachment. In fact, parent–child interaction isn’t a particularly good predictor of attachment.

What about the claim that early secure attachment is a positive influence on children’s development, whereas early insecure attachment puts children at risk of poor cognitive development and educational attainment?

Experimental studies involving attachment have been conducted ever since the strange situation procedure was developed over 40 years ago, so we can draw on a large body of evidence.

The best evidence comes from a meta-analysis, which pools data from multiple studies, showing that insecure attachment, and specifically insecure-disorganised attachment, are associated with an increased risk of behaviours such as conduct problems and hyperactivity.

However, the effects are not strong and the pattern of findings is different for boys and girls. In girls, early disorganised attachment was found to be associated with fewer of these behaviours.

So that’s the strongest evidence. What about the rest? Other research has shown that the effects of attachment on children’s later cognitive development and other types of behaviour problems such as social withdrawal and anxiety are negligible or small. Studies on attachment and children’s educational attainment are as rare as hen’s teeth, so it’s dangerous to draw conclusions when there is so little evidence.

The report’s claims about early insecure attachment predicting delinquency in adolescence and poorer job status in adulthood are simply alarmist. These claims are based on findings that measured attachment in adolescence or adulthood. They tell us nothing about whether secure attachment to parents in early childhood predicts these long-term outcomes.

The report assumes that attachment is stable over time, but this doesn’t fit with the evidence. In fact, fewer than half of children stay in the same attachment category over periods as short as six months.

Why complicate things?

But highlighting all of these misinterpretations isn’t really my point. My real worry is that non-experts think that parenting and attachment are the same thing, and believe that any benefit of improved parenting on children’s outcome must be because the improved parenting made the child securely attached.

Why complicate things in this way? They’re calling for interventions to improve the quality of parenting, so why don’t they focus on the considerable body of evidence that has assessed the quality of parent–child interaction and its role in predicting children’s later development?

Although the Sutton Trust report covers various parenting intervention programmes in its final section, they are merely listed and described. The only comparisons are in terms of financial cost.

Nowhere in the report is there a careful appraisal of which interventions have had their effects appropriately replicated, and whether we yet have sufficiently good data to warrant making any policy recommendations. This is the kind of in-depth analysis that’s needed.

Improving the lives of vulnerable families and children is of the utmost importance, so let’s not over-complicate things by delving into the highly complex academic findings on attachment security. Policy makers are busy people who need evidence-based advice on what sorts of interventions work. Unfortunately, the Sutton Trust report fails to deliver.

Elizabeth Meins receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.

Engaging effectively with Indigenous Australians: What does the research tell us?

Events & seminars - Wed, 16/04/2014 - 23:07
SEMINAR Engaging effectively with Indigenous Australians: What does the research tell us?
Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 12:30 PM - 2:00 PM
Hanna Neumann Building Room G058 (near the Union), The Australian National University.
Trends in public service reform, especially the 2010 Declaration of Open Government, encourage a 'culture of engagement' and collaboration with citizens. Since 2004-5 there have been a variety of approaches developed to improve such 'engagement' with Indigenous people by various jurisdictions, but Indigenous people frequently express frustration with how governments engage with them, and 'consultation fatigue' is a common outcome. more»

Updated: 21 April 2014/ Responsible Officer:  College Dean / Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications